Backtracking – Queen

Backtracking – Queen

8th October 2018 0 By Wes Bowie

A look back at an established artist or bands entire back catalogue

 

Every few weeks the Solo Armada will select a chosen artist/band and invite you to listen to each and every studio album that the artist/band has produced and discuss on social media.

From their debut to the last album released. An opportunity to understand and discover a bands original beginnings and how their music has evolved over the years and not rely on greatest hit compilations or that comfortable album that you’re so familiar with.

*Article Update – contains a review for each album by the Rock God that is Drewe Manton

Bohemian Rhapsody is released on 24th October in cinemas across the UK and what better way to understand the film than appreciate the music of Queen and how it’s developed over the years before you watch it.

Directed by Brian Singer and staring Rami Malek as the legendary Freddie Mercury, the film traces Queens rise throughout the music industry and how they defied it’s constraints and expectations (except for Freddie’s of course).

Now usually we would give a description of the chosen Backtracking artists or bands history, but that’s why the film exists. So instead why not listen to all 15 (yes 15!) studio albums that Queen have produced before the release of Bohemian Rhapsody, to help understand how the bands music evolved and enjoy the journey.

*Massive thank you to Michael Legge for your valuable input!

Queen – Released 13th July, 1973

Before Queen signed to the successful Trident studios for their first album recording they had a five song demo tape produced at De Lane Lea Studios which the band thought very highly of. Problems arose when the producer at the time, Roy Thomas Baker asked them to re-record the existing songs using better equipment. Queen were not happy with the the result and after several failed attempts, engineer Mike Stone stepped in and his first attempt re-recording with the band were a success.

After waiting eight months for a record label to pick up the album for distribution, Trident eventually released it themselves. During this waiting period Queen were becoming frustrated. Feeling disheartened by the delay Queen felt that they had creatively moved past the initial songs on the first album and began to write new material for their second album.

Queen II – Released 8th March, 1974

 

 

Queen II is the first of Queen’s albums to feature vocal harmonies and various musical styles along with multi-layered overdubs giving them their distinctive sound.

The LP did not feature the usual Side “A” and “B”, instead Queen produced a “Side White” and a “Side Black”. The white side would feature songs of a more emotional aspect whilst the black side played with dark themes and fantasy. The album did not feature the song Bohemian Rhapsody which many believe to be the case due to the album cover. The image would however be frequently reused throughout the bands career.

“With the exception of Seven Seas Of Rhye, which I have loved beyond measure for decades, it’s a much less “immediate” album than Queen, and I must admit to struggling some, regularly looking at the song list and wondering when it would be over while holding out for SSOR! Which, in honesty, probably means that if I make it a regular on my album playlist, I will grow to love it. As someone who listens to an awful lot of prog, I’m used to albums needing patience to click, so this may be that type. We’re going to find out, because I will be listening again.

Much more complex than Queen, the band really starting to stretch their legs creatively. In fact, as I type this, Father To Son is playing and I’m loving it more this time! So watch this space.

Overall, a solid 7/10 for me. Worthy of further attention, which it will get.”

Sheer Heart Attack – Released 8th November, 1974

Sheer Heart Attack was the album that launched Queen into mainstream popularity in the UK and US. Featuring songs such as Killer Queen, Now I’m Here and Brighton Rock the album featured a more conventional rock sound making the band more accessible and radio friendly.

It is also the first album to have all four members of the band credited for writing duties.  However during the creative process Brain May fell ill and was hospitalised. The rest of the band left space on the recordings for May to record his guitar and vocals and fill in the gaps.  He stated that this allowed him to see what Queen were becoming from the outside looking in and he was excited by what he saw.

“It already feels like stage one of Queen’s evolution is drawing to a close. There are more familiar songs than before, and the multi-tracking is getting will into its stride, but it hasn’t quite left the metallic crunch behind completely. Overall a great record, if a little fussy in places, but well worthy of its reputation. A solid 7/10 for me. Next up,A Night At The Opera. One of the few Queen albums I already own (and love). I shall listen to it out of respect for the process, but can score it a 9.5/10 prior to spinning it for the sake of this project.”

A Night at the Opera – Released 21st November, 1975

 

 

Despite the success of Sheer Heart Attack, Queen were broke due to signing a contract with a production company who would then sell on to record company for distribution. At one point Roger Taylor was told to drum lighter during live gigs as they couldn’t afford to replace drum sticks. The band eventually negotiated out of their contract and started searching for new management who they found in John Reid, also Elton Johns manager at the time. Reid advised them to go into the studio and make the best record they could.

The album is probably the bands most experimental album and features Queen’s most recognisable song, Bohemian Rhapsody.

“Yeah. Shall I just give it my already announced 9.5/10 and move on? 
Pretty much perfect. Were Queen ever better than here? A glorious collision of styles and talent that make it a sheer joy, especially for the incurable progster in me. Wild, adventurous,accomplished. Extra points for containing my favourite Queen song, and bonus points for that song being about the perils of time dilation in respect of space travel,sci-fact nerdy perfection, the beautiful ’39. 
Does it weird anyone else out to consider that there was a time when Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t exist? How is that possible? Well, it is and I’d already been at school for two years when it was released. Freaky. 
I hadn’t listened to the whole album for many years, and for that I humbly beg it’s forgiveness. Listen and marvel.”

A Day at the Races – Released 10th December, 1976

A Day at the Races was made as a companion album to A Night at the Opera which is relevant in both titles and album covers. It is also spawned more singles than any other previous album to date. 

It marked a true turning point in Queens progression as a band and their growing confidence. They had now become known globally and started to gain a sense of determination. In some magazine reviews the band were accused of having commercial aspirations upon it’s release but the fact remains the album often appears in top rundown lists of greatest albums.

“This was released at about the time I was becoming “aware” of music, and really starts the seam of solid gold hits Queen would have over the next few years. It has everything you’d want from Queen – Variety, talent, quirkiness, humour. And some right bangers!
I will say this though – I can find Brian May’s signature sort of “whiney” guitar tone a bit wearing after a while when it’s over used, and it can feel that way sometimes here. THe best analogy I can personally make is Allison Kraus – I absolutely adore her voice, and it stops me dead whenever I hear it. But it’s *SO* crystal, *SO* pure, *SO* perfect that it starts to grate after 3 or 4 songs in a row. For me it;s best savoured occasionally, and Brian May’s guitar can be the same.
It’s no Night At The Opera, but it only takes the most cursory of listens to say “yup, that’t it, that’s why they’re rock royalty” 7.5/10 for me.”

News of the World – Released 28th October, 1977

 

 

News of the World was recorded and released at the same time punk was on the rise. Bands such as the The Sex Pistols were creating a backlash to the music that Queen and Led Zeplin were producing at the time.

The album was mainly recorded in the same studios as The Sex Pistols at the time which lead to  meeting between Sid Vicious and Freddie. Upon Sid asking “Have you succeeded in bringing ballet to the masses yet?”, Freddie simply responded, “Ah, Mr Ferocious! We’re doing our best, dear!”

The album went on to become Queens most successful to date.

“Okay, it’s positively indecent to start an album with the 1-2 of We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions! That’s just unfair on pretty much anything else released in 1977 (Exceptions include A Farewell To Kings by Rush and Point Of Know Return by Kansas!). Whilst one may think that they peaked too soon with that medley, the rest of the album is actually most excellent. A collection of short sharp tracks, only one song exceeds four minutes. It reinforces that whilst they were a band that experimented with styles and sounds almost endlessly, at heart they remained a pretty banging rock group, and the longest track, It’s Late builds into a furious metal denouement, not out of place on a Deep Purple of Black Sabbath track. Superb. And then segues into My Melancholy Blues, almost the polar opposite! 
This is top five Queen for me, a healthy 8.5/10, maybe 9 on a good day. Well up there on my “essential Queen albums to own” Go! Listen! Treat your ears!”

Jazz – Released 10th November, 1978

Upon it’s release Jazz divided opinion amongst critics with one even calling it “Absurdly dull.” Many saw “Fat Bottomed Girls” and “Bicycle Race” as an attempt to see what the

public would buy into.

However, some critics cited the album as more fun than other Queen albums and the album has since gained more popularity and regularly appears in the top 5 of albums produced by the band.

Rolling Stone have since back tracked on their original article stating “Sometimes a reviewer just seems to have a really, really low opinion of a band.”

“An album with three of Queen’s very greatest, most recognisable hits on it, and every one an absolute corker of a song! Quintissentially Queen,the songs people think of when you mention their name. You have to give it massive props for those songs alone.
Outside of that? Hmm, I’m not all that taken. Those flashes of brilliance don’t really save the rest of the album for me. It’s overly poppy, but not in a good way. Like it’s schizophrenically trying to remain true to it’s roots while trying new sounds and ideas, many of which simply fail to my ears. And that aforementioned Brian May signature guitar “whine” is here in spades, and starts to positively annoy after a while. 
I’m not sure what it’s trying to achieve , or what the band thought they were aiming for, but whatever, it kind of left me cold. 
The hits get 11/10, they are SO FUCKING QUEEN it hurts. The rest? A 5/10 at best i’m afraid.It doesn’t suck, far from it, it just doesn’t hit me where I live, sorry!”

The Game – Released 30th June, 1980

 

 

The album was the only one of Queens to reach No 1 in the US album charts and went on to sell four million copies to date. It was a huge critical and commercial success for the band but it was also the first to feature synthesizers and resulted in a alternative direction from the original rock roots. Some even stated that the band had turned away from rock and more towards pop which at the time was becoming more popular.

“Another One Bites the Dust” written by bassist John Deacon and features on the album is Queens biggest selling single of all time.

“Utterly gobsmacked. The first one so far where I’ve immediately wanted to hit play again. Pure, distilled essence of Queen. Even Brian’s guitar tone rarely strays to the “whine”, and when it does, it’s a welcome appearance, rather than an overplayed trope. There is nothing here I’d skip. It’s sensational. It has surely moved away from the earlier metallic stylings, although it rocks out on occasion.

Half the album I know, half is new to me, all is great. It may even knock A Night At The Opera off my top spot. 
10/10 for the first half
10/10 for the second half
10/10 for the hole in the middle of the CD I will be buying very shortly. 
Fucking brilliant.”

Flash Gordon – Released 8th December, 1980

The soundtrack to the film and one of two that Queen ever produced. The second being Highlander.

Queen entirely dispensed with vocals for the majority of the album which was a bold move for a band that is at its core a rock band. They delivered an album that was experimental and synth driven combining movie dialogue and sound effects. This has since been copied for other soundtracks many times since.

“Well, what to say? 
“DESPATCH WAR ROCKET AJAX, TO BRING BACK HIS BODY!”
If, like me, you’re of a”certain” age, this film will be hardwired into your psyche. I’ve seen it dozens of times, A warm living room at Christmas, some drinks, a chilly evening outside, and Flash Gordon. It can make me feel 12 again. 
It’s utterly bonkers, camper than Butlins, laugh out loud stupid, compelling,fun and addictive. Both the film and the soundtrack. 
I can think of absolutely no band that had ever existed who could possibly have been more perfect than Queen to score this. But as with so much of what they did, there’s a hard undercurrent of serious musical prowess on display here, and stuff like Battle Theme and Hero rock like mothers. Beautifully produced as well. 
The question- was the film a vehicle for a Queen album, or was the album a vehicle for the film? They are so utterly, inextricably intertwined that it could be either, or both. 
Bonkers but accomplished, it’s a landmark achievement in soundtrack albums in my opinion. An easy, grinning 9/10 for me.”

 

Hot Space – Released 21st May, 1982

 

 

Hot Space is regarded as a troublesome period in Queens recording history. The album was a deviation from the bands usual rock style and instead adopted a disco/dance theme which was popular at the time. The band had previously used synthesisers on previous album The Game but not to the extent that was featured on Hot Space.

Both Brian May and Roger Taylor were unhappy with the new sound placing the blame on Freddie Mercury’s manager at the time, Paul Prenter who had a strong influence over the singer.  It was even rumoured that Paul denied the other bands members access to Freddie.

The album was ultimately a commercial failure but did produce a number one single with “Under Pressure”,  duet with David Bowie.

“Well, this is awkward. Erm… .I quite like it actually. <shrug>, sorry. 😂
It’s not vintage Queen, and is arguably more of it’s time than anything else they did. It’s aged terribly, but in the same sense, as a product of the early eighties, has aged exactly as one would suspect. It’s poppy/synthy a lightweight for the most part, and I get the impression that behind all this was probably the most hedonistic portion of Freddie’s life. But he stretches his voice on stuff like Cool Cat, as hopelessly anachronistic as it’s reggae beat sounds now, Put Out The Fire rocks a phat one, and to end with Under Pressure effectively camouflages any huge negativity. 
Placing? Well, near the bottom for sure, but I still like it more than I liked Jazz, so there’s that. 
<shrug> (again). . .sue me haters! It’s a middling 5/10 from me. Better than I was expecting, but bracketed by brilliance.”

The Works –Released 27th February, 1984

During a break after Hot Space the band members focused on solo work or collaborated with other artists at the time. The Works saw the return of Brian May’s and Roger Taylor’s rock sounds melded with the new synth direction the band had taken on the previous album.

The album features “I want to Break Free” where the video for the single features all four band members dressed up as women. The reaction at the time in the US to the music video due to its content saw it being banned from airing on any music channels in North America. In response to this Queen took the decision not to tour the album in North America.

“Look, we may disagree on Hot Space, in that I found it rather more listenable than most, who display varying levels of antipathy (even among the Queen obsessed friends I have outside of the Armada!), but there is no doubt that this is a stunning return to form. The weakest song on here for me is Keep Passing The Open Windows, and even that is not one I feel I’d skip. What a fabulous album!

Chock full of some of their most anthemic 80’s hits, it’s nearly impossible for me to hear Hammer To Fall or Radio Ga Ga and not be transported to that summer’s day in 1985 when Queen pretty much redefined the power of live performance as they held the world in the palm of their hands for a short half hour during Live Aid, simply astounding.

And the album is a snappy 37 minutes! Bliss! (for those not aware, I have this theory that the sweet spot for album length is 35-40 minutes, the legacy of a time when an album sides was roughly twenty minutes long . It tended to make for lovingly crafted albums, every song counted, there was no filler, and nothing ever outstayed it’s welcome – the last real album to prove this for me was 2009’s Backspacer by Pearl Jam)

The album hurtles along to a remarkably restrained ending, but what a journey! Honestly, listen to Hammer To Fall again and marvel at the power and the majesty – Freddie’s royal gown and crown was well earned!

A healthy 9/10 from me, losing a few marks for the restraint of the ending (not that it’s poor,it’s just a step change in pace that maybe doesn’t work as well for me) Fan-bloody-tastic.”

A kind of Magic – Released 3rd June, 1986

 

 

Prior to the release  Queen had performed the year before at the Live Aid Concert which was broadcast live across the world. The album which was originally intended to be a soundtrack for the film Highlander went straight to number 1 upon its release and remained in the UK charts for 63 weeks.

Despite its success critics were not impressed and numerous reviews stated that it was underwhelming. However, over the years it has steadily climbed various greatest album lists.

The concert tour for the album was sadly going to be Queens last as a year later Freddie Mercury was diagnosed with HIV (at the time only revealed to the other members of Queen and not publically) and would be too ill to promote further albums.

“Not sure why Wes doubted if I’d like this. I love it. It’s genesis as a soundtrack album means it had a really “big” sound, up to and including orchestras, which just fits Queen so utterly perfectly that it’s a joyous experience, especially through headphones. Stuff like pain is so close to pleasure can veer towards Martha And The Vandellas maybe, but it’s a welcome interlude, while it’s another chock full of utterly listenable hits, some of which pound along with a heaviness that can surprise. And delight.

Note – *forty* minutes end to end. My theory holds true. Never outstays it’s welcome, makes you want to hit play again, totally engaging. Superb. 8.5/10″

The Miracle – Released 22nd May 1989

With Freddie Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis in 1987 and Brian May’s marital problems the band eventually made it back into the studio in January 1988.

The album would be the first that Queen would not promote with a concert tour due to Freddie’s health. During a Radio 1 interview, when questioned about not going on tour Freddie said that he had become tired of the constant; Album then tour, album then tour, album then tour. However, the press would continue to question Freddie’s health, particularly as he was making fewer public appearances and those which he did appear at there was a noticeable physical decline.

“Familiar but (mostly)not contemptible. More hits. More indulgent poppy/rock goodness on side 1. You know the hits. I love the hits. But Khashoggi’s Ship is the stand out for me. A flash of rocky Queen, with Brian popping up and tearing it up for a bit. The rest are fun, addictive, familiar little ditties, and none the worse for it. Side one is a solid 9/10

Side 2 kicks off with Breakthru, a song I love, if only for the campiness of the video, steam trains and polystyrene walls? Yes please! Sadly for me, the next three songs, Rain Must Fall, Scandal and My Baby Does Me are utterly forgettable in a way Queen rarely managed. Dull, lifeless dirges with little that demand I ever hear them again. Honestly, side 2 would be a 2/10 were it not for the final track, Was It All Worth It, which is a solid gold ripsnorter in true 70’s bombastic, OTT Queen style. Everything is on point. Great harmony, delicious hooks, Brian shredding. A multi layered feast for the ears, so good I wonder how it came to share album space with the previous three dirges. 
Hmmm, the dreary three really hurt this album for me, but I’m loathe to let them drag it’s great moments down with them. 7/10.”

Innuendo – Released 5th February, 1991

 

 

Innuendo would be the last studio album to feature Freddie Mercury’s vocals before his passing, nine months after the release of the album. It marked a return to number one in both the album charts and single charts with the single Innuendo. The song was a massive radio hit despite being longer than Bohemian Rhapsody.

The band were originally aiming to release the album in November the previous year hoping to capture the Christmas market. However, due to Freddie’s declining health which is noticeable in the recording of the album because of his now weakened voice range, the album was delayed.

The tone of the album was a return to Queens harder rock roots and featured more complex compositions and effects.

“So, to the last of the “while he was still here” albums. Some disclosure is necessary before I speak about this one. For many years this, along with Greatest Hits and A Night At The Opera, were the only Queen albums I owned. I bought it almost out of guilt wen released, because by that time it was plain that Freddie was gravely ill, and whilst not a massive fan, even then I was keenly aware of their contribution to music, and so thought it was a necessary purchase.

The guilt faded when I fell deeply in love with it, and whilst I have’t listened to it in years, today’s listen is reinforcing that was an easy album to love. It’s a belter. I had it on heavy rotation for many months back then, and always think fondly of those days when it was a regular song with Pearl Jam’s Ten, Badmotorfinger by Soundgarden, Roll The Bones by Rush, The Big Wheel by Runrig. . .it all just fitted, and the triggered memories are strong.

From the title track, through the rocking Headlong, to the reflective These Are The Days Of Our Lives, it felt like a statement. “I haven’t got long to go, but this is my parting gift, I trust it was worth it”. It was Freddy, it was. I will confess to shedding a tear listening to this, both for the towering talent that was gone too soon, and, a little more indulgently, for the 21 year old young man listening endlessly in the bedroom of his parents’ house. Freddy and that young man are both long gone, but I have an enduring fondness for them both.

The conclusion, the Show Must Go On. . . . the only other time something hit me as such a profound farewell was Bowie’s Blackstar.

I’m sorry, that was more about me than Innuendo, wasn’t it? Well, no matter, that’s the point of music, surely?

In case I haven’t been clear, I have a deep, profound connection to this album. I adore pretty much every second for a host of reasons. And I’m happy to award a healthy 15/10 for those reasons.”

 

Made in Heaven – Released 6th November, 1995

For Made In Heaven, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon worked with vocals and compositions that Freddie Mercury had recorded before he passed away.

Freddie recorded as much as he could because he knew time was limited. The instructions to the other members of Queen was to complete the songs at a later time.

Before he passed away, the other band members were at Freddie’s beckoning call as to whenever he was feeling well enough to record. In an interview Brian May said Freddie told them ‘Get me to sing anything, write me anything and I will sing it and I will leave you as much as I possibly can.’

“And so to the end. This is really, really good. But not brilliant. The most remarkable thing is how flawlessly beautiful Freddie’s voice sounds, considering how close he was to his own demise whilst laying them down. It’s incontrovertible proof of the sheer depth of his talent. I’m not going to pick individual tracks, just comment as a whole.

The pluses are that, unlike so many things produced this way, this does not feel in any way, shape or form like an album tacked together from the bits left over. It feels like Freddy was an integral part of the whole process. That’s a remarkable achievement, and testament to the talents in and around the band. You can imagine Freddy doing this live, it’s an easy leap to make. It’s the first time I’ve heard it all, and I positively want to listen again.

That said, and this is all me – it’s an incredible tribute to Freddie’s heart and soul that he spent his last months straining to produce as much as he could for the band to work with after his passing, and makes it a poignant bookend to life spectacularly lived, but I can’t escape the knowledge that he was GONE. And that’s a mental block for me. That the quality on display here can make me enjoy it in spite of this knowledge is a great thing. But. . .still, you know?
8/10. Incredibly consistent given the circumstances of its creation, and undeniably Queen. A fitting conclusion.”